So when Paddy Tally describes their first Sigerson Cup win in 28 years as “nothing short of remarkable”, you can’t but agree.
Tally, a member of Mickey Harte’s Tyrone backroom team in 2003, is a senior lecturer in PE at the teacher training college.
He began coaching the Sigerson team in 1999.
Every year was an uphill battle given their tiny playing pool. Every year ended in disappointment.
That was until Saturday.
Having taken down DCU and UCC to progress to their first final in 24 years, the northerners continued their giant-killing run to dethrone 2016 champions UCD and, in the process, secure a first Sigerson crown since 1989.
“Most secondary schools would have a bigger pick than us,” said the winning St Mary’s manager.
“Every footballer eligible to play for the college is on this panel. What these guys have done is nothing short of remarkable and I don’t know if there is any comparable in sport.”
Central to their victory were the outstanding performances of Conor Meyler at half-back, Conall McCann at midfield and Kieran McGeary.
All three have played championship for Tyrone, but none were offered scholarships or enticed to enrol at St Mary’s because of their football pedigree.
That’s not how they conduct their business on the Falls Road campus.
“If they come, they come, and we’ll work with them,” continued Tally.
“These guys had to pay for the socks and shorts they wear. These guys are made to pay for everything because I don’t believe in handouts. You don’t get anything easy in sport or life. That’s the mentality we wanted to impress upon these lads.
“These boys have come out of the wee clubs in the different counties in Ulster, they’ve come together and decided they were going to win the Sigerson Cup. And they’ve done it. It is unbelievable. They had to dig very, very deep and they did. They are a credit.”
Mind you, they endured the worst possible start. In a carbon copy of their semi-final, Marys’ defence was rocked by the concession of two early goals.
Playing into the wind, UCD were in dreamland when Colm Basquel finished off a move involving midfield pair Jack Barry and Barry O’Sullivan after 51 seconds. The same player added a second two minutes later.
The response of the Belfast side was to kick nine points in-a-row. Oisín O’Neill landed three frees, while the likes of McCann, Meyler and Cathal McShane also contributed.
A Paul Mannion point ended UCD’s 26-minute barren spell, a rare passage of play that didn’t end with a blue shirt being hounded out of possession. The composure and rigid organisation of their opponents frustrated the Belfield outfit.
Jack McCaffrey was yellow-carded, so too was Eamon Wallace. They’d finish with five players in the book of referee Conor Lane, while Barry O’Sullivan saw black late on.
The 0-9 to 2-1 deficit facing them at half-time was hardly insurmountable. Within 16 seconds of the restart, Conor Mullally had breached the opposition cover. His shot, however, was saved by Mark Reid.
They spent the next quarter of an hour camped in the St Mary’s half. Paul Mannion missed a free and a ’45.
Barry McGinn missed a free. Stephen Coen kicked wide, with McGinn off target for a second occasion. They did everything bar put the ball between the posts.
McShane compounded UCD woes when raising a white flag in a counter-attacking move that was to be repeated time and time again.
McGinn and Conor McCarthy narrowed the gap to the minimum, but John Divilly’s students failed to secure parity.
Corey Quinn and McGeary edged Tally’s side 0-13 to 2-4 clear entering the four minutes of second-half stoppages, where they just about held on.
“Our mistakes, probably, cost us,” said UCD boss Divilly. “We had lots and lots of chances there in the second-half to draw level or go ahead and we did not take them. If you don’t take them, you’re not going to win. St Mary’s have come the hard way. Hats off to them.”
“We had lots and lots of chances there in the second-half to draw level or go ahead and we did not take them. If you don’t take them, you’re not going to win. St Mary’s have come the hard way. Hats off to them.”
O’Neill (0-4, 0-3 frees); K McGeary (0-1 free), C McCann, C McShane (0-2 each); C Meyler, C Corrigan, C Quinn (0-1 each).
C Basquel (2-1); C McCarthy (0-2, 0-1 free); E Wallace, P Mannion, B McGinn (0-1 each).
M Reid (Down); R Mooney (Derry), A McKay (Armagh), K Mallon (Armagh); C Byrne (Tyrone), C Mac Iomhar (Armagh), C Meyler (Tyrone); C McCann (Tyrone), O O’Neill (Armagh); C Corrigan (Fermanagh), K McGeary (Tyrone), S McConville (Down); K McKernan (Down), M Fitzpatrick (Antrim), C McShane (Tyrone).
C Quinn (Down) for McConville (45 mins); J Hannigan (Antrim) for McKay (61).
C Honan (Meath); E Murchan (Dublin), M Fitzsimmons (Dublin), R McDaid (Dublin); C Mullally (Dublin), S Coen (Mayo), J McCaffrey (Dublin); B O’Sullivan (Kerry), J Barry (Kerry); A McDonnell (Louth), C McCarthy (Monaghan), E Wallace (Meath); P Mannion (Dublin), C Basquel (Dublin), B McGinn (Monaghan).
L Casey (Tipperary) for McDonnell (HT); T Hayes (Cavan) for Mannion (56); L Moran (Longford) for O’Sullivan (57, bc).
C Lane (Cork).